China on mind, govt ring-fences telecom

NEW DELHI: The government’s decision to issue the National Security Directive on telecom comes after nearly six months of intense deliberations at the highest level seeking to restrict Chinese influence on what is seen as a strategic sector.
A committee led by deputy NSA Rajinder Khanna will approve the designation of ‘trusted sources’ which will be approved, or not, by the ‘designated authority’.
While discussions on restrictions had begun as far back as June, when the first round of Chinese apps were banned, the government spent considerable time looking at the best tool to impose the curbs, joining countries such as Australia and the UK that have banned Huawei and ZTE from participating in 5G equipment contracts.
Although the government action only refers to “trusted sources and products”, the target is quite clear and is seen to be part of a strategy to hurt China, which is already complaining about scrutiny of FDI proposals and the ban on several apps. Interestingly, the directive “does not envisage mandatory replacement of existing equipment already inducted in the networks of TSPs”.
The directive will also not affect ongoing annual maintenance contracts or updates to existing equipment already inducted in the network as on date of effect of the directive. This was one of the big demands of Indian telecom companies which had used Chinese hardware for both 3G and 4G services.
The government’s move to confine telecom services to ‘trusted sources’ is also connected to a strategic decision to join partners like the US and Japan to design and build 5G networks without China’s involvement. The US and Japan have already announced a project to move ahead on this. India has been invited to join the endeavour. Within India, Jio and Tech Mahindra have announced that they would team up with Japanese and Korean companies for 5G.
The Modi administration’s assessment is that cyber attacks apart, the telecom infrastructure that forms the backbone for the power, financial and other sectors is too sensitive to face any threat.
Networks offering 5G services are seen to be even more vulnerable to be allowed to be handled by companies like Huawei, whose founder was part of the PLA.
Restrictions have been debated for long, in India as well as in other countries, and gathered momentum after the Covid-19 outbreak and the Chinese aggression on the border. Few have so far moved on the checks. With India joining the small club, chances are that other countries may join the list amid intense discussions in Europe, which stands to gain the most. After all, New Delhi’s move to include the massively popular TikTok on the list of banned apps was followed by other countries.

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